Best winning storylines for the 2017 Open Championship

It’s a well documented fact that golf is on a run of first time major winners. Since Zach Johnson’s triumph in a playoff at the 2015 Open Championship, seven different players have taken home a major title for the first time, from long awaited winners like Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson to young thoroughbreds like Brooks Koepka, and the crazy thing is that it’s very easy to see this trend continue for the next year or so without even batting an eye.

Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and many more could win a major and it wouldn’t shock anyone. Those four players are all vying for the Open this week at Royal Birkdale, and would all provide a tremendous storyline if they were able to come out on top. That’s the point of this post: who would provide the best winning storyline if they were able to capture the Claret Jug this week? Here’s my top ten.

Note: The caveat here is that I’m only listing players that I think have a legitimate chance to win the tournament, so as much as Mark O’Meara winning would be amazing, he won’t be here.

10. Henrik Stenson

The Open Championship has only been defended four times since 1970, with Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington all accomplishing the feat. It just doesn’t happen that often, and while Stenson himself claimed after his round on Sunday at the Scottish Open that he didn’t give himself much of a chance to repeat, the fact is that if the putter is working, he is as good as anyone in the field. He put on an utterly ridiculous display of golf last year at Troon when he battled Phil Mickelson, and I’d be totally fine if the two of them just wanted to run that one back at Birkdale.

9. Jon Rahm/Hideki Matsuyama/Justin Thomas

I mentioned these three guys at the top of this post and grouped them together for two reasons: the first is that all three are looking for their first major championship win, but the second reason is actually more important for the context of this post. All three guys have incredibly bright futures ahead of them, and don’t have significant major scar tissue at this point in their careers. If any of them win this week, it’s a great story and just continues what we’ve been saying for the last couple of years about how deep the talent has become in the post-Tiger era, but if they don’t win this one or any of the next seven or eight, we also shouldn’t freak out either.

8. Tommy Fleetwood

For a while, Tommy Fleetwood was the jewel of the most hardcore segment of Golf Twitter. He was the guy that the punters and loyal European Tour watchers pointed to as probably one of the ten best ball strikers in the world, despite the fact that many North American golf fans had never seen him play. Towards the end of last year, things really started to come together, culminating in his win back in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship when he nipped Dustin Johnson. Good finishes followed that as well, including a runner-up to DJ in Mexico, and a T4 at the U.S. Open before winning again a few weeks ago in France with a stunning final round 66.

It’s all coming together for Fleetwood, who despite his elevated place in the game over the last few months, doesn’t have the stature of the Rahm/Hideki/JT group and a win here would theoretically place him on that level or higher. Throw in the fact that he’s a native of Southport and that we’re at the 25th anniversary of the last Englishman to win the Open, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a great story.

7. Jordan Spieth

Since we’ve been watching him do pretty well at this professional golf thing for the last few years, sometimes I need to remind myself that Jordan Spieth is still just 23 years old. If he can manage to win this week, he will have completed three of the four legs of the career grand slam with oodles of time to capture the PGA Championship and join that ultra exclusive club. This should also serve as a reminder that much like Tiger, it feels like we even though we talk about him endlessly, that we don’t appreciate just how good Spieth really is. Maybe a third major before he turns 24 next week would change that.

6. Padraig Harrington

I’m sure many of you are thinking that I’m crazy for including Harrington on a list where I stipulated that the player must have a legitimate shot at winning the tournament, but hear me out. The weather is supposed to be brutal this week, which is something that Harrington loves, partially because he’s of the opinion that it takes a lot of players out of the event from a mental standpoint, but also because he tends to play well in adverse conditions. He has wins in each of the past two years after a seven year drought. Ever the tinkerer, he’s got some new swing that he’s been working on, and it seems to be working with a T4 finish in Scotland last week with an impressive Sunday 66 after a dreadful Saturday 79.

He’s the biggest longshot on this list to win the event, but don’t discount him and also don’t forget that he won the last Open held here at Birkdale back in 2008. A win this week would give him four major wins and adds to his legacy of having one of the most under appreciated careers in golf history.

5. Rory McIlroy

So, Rory has missed the cut in three of his last four starts and it’s obvious that he’s not in the kind of form that we all expect of him. Whether there are lingering effects from his rib injury, the lack of time to get used to new equipment, simple rust or a combination of all three, the fact is that for someone as talented as he is, the chances are that he’s going to break out of this funk sooner rather than later. Ben Coley wrote a great piece for Sporting Life this week that’s a must read, and I still firmly believe what I wrote about him a few weeks ago.

What’s on the line here for Rory? Well, with a win, he would become just the twentieth player in the history of the game to win five majors, putting his career total on par with the likes of Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson at just 28 years old. Much like Spieth, there’s a certain level of historical significance with Rory that gets lost sometimes because he’s been so good for so long. A win would also likely silence some of the critics of his game that suggest he’s been struggling mightily since his last major win at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, despite the fact that he has six wins and a boatload of good finishes against the very best fields in the sport.

As I said in my piece a few weeks ago, I’m a strong believer that Rory is, and will be, just fine. He doesn’t “need” this win like you could argue other people on this list do, but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt either.

4. Ian Poulter

Even if you’re one of the people who can’t stand Ian Poulter, you have to admit that the story behind a win here would be something special. After a combination of injuries and poor play, it looked like Poulter lost his PGA Tour card, but got it back thanks to Brian Gay reading the rules and now, he’s actually in good form. He went out and qualified the hard way for the tournament, doing so at his home course of Woburn and was in the final group last week in Scotland before falling back to the pack.

The thing with Poulter is that you know he’s never going to quit, and you have to figure that if he’s ever going to win that elusive first major championship, this would be the one he has to get. He’s always been a good links player, and unlike Rory, he usually finds ways to get it done in adverse conditions. He’s been an important character in the game for the last decade or so, and while that doesn’t entitle him to a championship win, it does mean that a story of battling back from where he was is compelling.

3. Phil Mickelson

As out of nowhere as the 2013 Open Championship win was for Phil Mickelson, a win this week at Birkdale would probably be even more out of left field. It’s not that Mickelson isn’t playing well, because it’s very clear that he still has the game to compete at the highest level. It’s more that for whatever reason, he seems to be more prone than ever to getting tired and letting rounds slip away from him with careless mistakes. Even more troubling was his admission a few weeks ago that seeing his own name at the top of the leaderboard in Memphis “shook” him and caused a tumble that eventually saw him finish in solo ninth. Throw in the fact that he broke from tradition and skipped the Scottish Open this week, and that his recent split with longtime caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay is still fresh, and you’ve got all of the makings of a poor week in Southport for the five time major winner.

Still though, he’s Phil Mickelson and counting him out of an event always feels like a big mistake. He hasn’t won a single tournament since that Open Championship four years ago, which seems unbelievable when you think back on the amount of quality golf that he has played. A win would erase any doubts of how much Phil has left in the tank, and also elevate him into the class of players with six major championship victories, which only twelve players have accomplished to date.

2. Rickie Fowler

With Sergio’s win at the Masters earlier this year, it feels like Fowler assumed the mantle of “best player in the world without a major” because unlike the guys mentioned at the top of this post, he has had enough opportunities to win one, and he just hasn’t done it yet. As Sergio can attest, winning golf tournaments and particularly major championships, is difficult work and when looking at Fowler, it should be noted that at 28 years of age, he has plenty of time to get this done. Mickelson was 33 when he won the 2004 Masters, Sergio was 37 a few months ago for his green jacket win and Stenson had just turned 40 at Troon last year. Fowler’s game has improved over the years, and the idea that he’s more of a brand than a golfer at this point should be widely dispelled. There may have been a kernel of truth to that a few years ago, but that is simply not the case anymore.

Much like Sergio, he also happens to be a perfect fit for links golf, as someone who loves to shape the ball all over the course and has no problem playing in the elements. If you had told me that the last seven major winners would be first timers, and that Fowler wouldn’t have been one of them, I never would have believed you for a second, but that’s going to come to an end soon, and it’ll be a great story when it does.

1. Lee Westwood

Can you imagine?

I know that many of you believe that this will never happen. That Westwood doesn’t putt or chip well enough. That after years of heartbreak, he just doesn’t have it in him to win the big tournament. You might be right, but I’m still holding out hope. I still look at Westwood as the guy who hits the ball well enough to get himself into contention, and under the right circumstances, either with the draw or someone else not jumping up to snatch it away, is the guy that can get it done.

Weird things have a way of happening at the Open, and of all the majors, this is the one that seems to allow older players to contend more frequently and later into the tournament. If Westwood’s ball striking is on point, he’s going to be in the thick of it on the weekend and then it’ll be up to his short game to seal the deal. It hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t and if you’re talking about stories, there really isn’t one that’s any better than Lee Westwood winning the 2017 Open Championship.

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